Friday, March 12, 2010

On Self-Segregation and Lack Thereof

macon d at Stuff White People Do discussed self-segregation, and he asked PoC if they ever felt the need to self-segregate when they spend a lot of time in white-dominated spaces. He also asked if there were certain things white folks do that cause this desire to self-segregate.


I'll be honest and admit that I never understood the purpose of self-segregation. In fact, I used to be extremely critical of international students at my university, because they spent so much time together, even as they were there to learn English. It seemed rather counter-productive. This is not to say all of them did - I volunteered as an ESL tutor to three lovely students, two Koreans and a Japanese, who were all about going out to do stuff with me like hang at the Art Gallery, or listen to music, or mess with vocabulary. But in general, I would see huge groups of students sticking together. (A friend of mine refers to a hallway in the university as "mini-Lebanon". I don't know if they're all Lebanese, but I'm not an Arab-speaker, and my friend is, so I'll defer to his opinion on that.)

But as I said, it seemed counter-productive to go all the way across the planet to a different culture, only to shy away from it. Now, of course, I recognize different people have different reasons for going places, and not all of them are like me. These students were here to learn English from an English-speaking institution (and I hope they at least got that much), not to revel in the sometimes strange-assed Western specifically-Canadian even-more-specifically-Nova-Scotian culture we live in. These days, I give them a pass - they can't speak English, so of course shit is going to be alienating for them, because so much of what goes on is mostly parsed in the English language, and if you don't have a familiarity with the language, the culture is going to be, by and large, kinda inaccessible. I'd love to hear other opinions on this, though. I'm very fond of the concept of linguistic determination like that.

However, more infuriating than the international ESL students, were Malaysian international students, who came here - and probably still do come here - for other degrees. At my uni, our population was small enough that self-segregation was not possible all the time, and in general, they did hang out with many other international students, as well as white folk. The Malaysian students at the other local uni, though, came as part of a twinning program, and their degree kept them busy as hell, and otherwise, they tended to stick together.

I had my own crew of mostly-white friends to run with. I loved being in Canada, and I still do. The freedom from family, as well as the social mores of Malaysia, gave me the spiritual sunshine I needed to grow up and become more confident in myself. That said, I purposefully divorced myself from other Malaysian, and even Asian, company. I said hi to other Malaysians on campus, but I wasn't invested in keeping ties with them (besides which, the only two Malaysian guys on campus were douchebags, one of whom repeatedly distributed photos of two drunk naked girls) because, really, we didn't have much in common. 

And the one time I did go out to hang with an all-Malaysian crew, I promised myself I would never do that again. They were nice, and it was an okay night, but I was... pretty bored, ya'll! I was a nerd of nerds there, a geek, even, and these folks had no such specialized interests!

So, in a sense, I self-segregated - to hang with other nerds and geeks. Who happened to be white. Which, on another level, is not so much segregation of the nerds, so much as it is assimilation into a white nerd culture. I'm lucky to get out of it unscathed - there's a pretty good nerd culture here which doesn't lean towards objectification of women and/or non-whites.

But of course, there will be some things that white folks will never understand, nor black folks, nor even Asian folks who do not come from my geographic context. I won't say I purposefully seek out folks who are, because I don't, unless it's online where they have the option of ignoring me, but there are times when I will make a joke... and nobody but a Malaysian will get it.

I don't get to self-segregate then, because there isn't really a sizable Malaysian group I can tolerate for very long. There isn't really a group of Asians I can hang out with either. I don't get to find "my people" and be in a place where I'm completely comfortable expressing myself in those unique cultural ways which code me as Asian/Malaysian/Chinese.

But I do have the Internet. And I do get to go home. And having separated myself from my own culture for so long, I know it's a blessing when I get to go home.

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